Frankie Edgar's demolition of Cub Swanson on Saturday night may bring us back to the inevitable fork in the road.
Edgar, based on beating Swanson, and he did far more than just beat him, should be the top contender for Jose Aldo's featherweight title. That is, if decisions on who gets title shots are based on what one has proven inside the cage.
Conor McGregor should be the top contender for Aldo based on the ability to make people interested in seeing a fight.
The decisions in these circumstances are basically sport vs. business, and in a professional sport, business almost always wins out. The situation is, whether good or bad, was proven by Bellator's television ratings one week ago. What brings people to the table is not a great fight, but great personalities and great hype for a fight. As long as the public responds like that, these decisions remain hard, and often the most worthy contender often ends up being the one to learn the virtues of patience.
The easy decision, and many would argue the fair decision, is to go with Edgar. Easy, in that everyone running a fight company would love business to be so simple that as long as you match the two best people up all the time, you draw the most fans, most eyeballs, and make the most money. But it's not an easy business, and that just isn't the case.
Edgar (18-4-1) destroyed Swanson (21-6), who came in as the No. 2 contender for the title. Edgar was No. 3. They were both ranked behind Chad Mendes, who just lost to Aldo last month. So the winner, by all rights, should get the next title shot. Given that there was no dispute over who won, and that Edgar put on a double exclamation point performance in winning, based on earning a title shot based on what you have done inside the cage, he's easily the man.
On my scorecard, it was a one-sided beating. I had Edgar with 10-8 rounds in round three and four. Round five was as clear a 10-8 round as you'll ever see, until Swanson tapped out with four seconds left on the clock.
In actuality, the scoring wasn't as lopsided as the fight. Two judges gave Swanson the first round and only one judge gave a 10-8 round, Marcos Rosales giving it in round four for Edgar, which leads to other issues for another time.
Edgar proved long ago that he was one of the great fighters of this era by regularly going into the cage and giving up 15 or more pounds as an undersized lightweight. Even though he was smaller than most featherweights and smaller than a lot of bantamweights, Edgar won the lightweight title from B.J. Penn four years ago. At the time, the belief was Penn was unbeatable in that weight class. Then Edgar beat him even more soundly in a rematch. Next, Edgar came back from being as close to losing as possible while still surviving in round one against Gray Maynard twice, only to turn it around for a win and a draw in two legendary fights. While Benson Henderson cleanly beat him for that title, many believe Edgar should have won the rematch.
Instead, he moved to featherweight to face Jose Aldo, where he lost a decision in a competitive fight.
Edgar is not just a guy who wins against guys bigger, but a guy known for exciting fights. He's had seven fight of the nights, the all-time UFC record-holder in that category. Had it not been for the Paige VanZant vs. Kailin Curran fight tearing down the house in a prelim, Saturday would have been No. 8. So you've got a guy who is a great fighter, with a proven track record, whose fights are usually as exciting as they come, and who is respected by everyone.
Except he's not a major ticket seller.
McGregor may be. He brought a lot of Irish fans to Las Vegas on Sept. 27. He sold out his prior fight in Dublin, Ireland, on a show built around him. One could argue that since it had been so many years since UFC had run in Dublin ,and it was a mid-sized arena, it would have sold out either way. But his popularity did help UFC garner a stronger television deal in Ireland, and he has delivered huge ratings in that country. While everyone talks about him, and he's a lightning rod for attention given his quick wit and unique fashion sense, the jury is still out on his U.S. drawing power. The real proof will come on Jan. 18, when he's called to headline a show in Boston against Dennis Siver.
If McGregor wins that fight, Aldo vs. McGregor could very well be promoted in a soccer stadium. You wind McGregor up, and he talks about selling out an 80,000-seat stadium with Aldo.
Edgar himself knows the value of talking. He got a second fight with Henderson, ahead of Anthony Pettis, because after he lost the title, he spoke as loudly as he could, while Pettis stayed quiet.
And Edgar was hardly quiet after the fight Saturday, fully understanding how the game is played.
"It should be me," he said after the fight. "Based on my performance, based on what I've done in my career, it should be me."
It's unlikely any decision on who Aldo faces next will be made before Jan. 18. If McGregor looks unimpressive, Edgar could get the shot. But everyone knows Siver, a shorter, older kickboxer, is there to provide McGregor with solid veteran competition, but no more than that.
"I think everyone wants to see him fight a wrestler," said Edgar. "Dennis isn't an easy fight by any means, but it's not what people want to see him against, a wrestler, or someone who will take him into deep water."
But even if McGregor scores a quick knockout, his caliber of wins can't touch that of Edgar, nor can his career record. But until the day comes when Edgar vs. Swanson blows away Tito Ortiz vs. Stephan Bonnar in public interest anywhere near the level it does in quality of the fighters involved, the UFC will be forced to make the hard decisions.
And if Edgar isn't getting the next shot, provided he doesn't lose if he takes another fight, he should be a lock to be next in line to face an Aldo-McGregor winner. That's provided he makes sure to consistently remind everyone.
"I don't know if I'll be angry," he said about the prospect that he will get the shot after McGregor. "I'll be disappointed. I won't be a baby about it. I'll go back to the gym and win my shot."
Let's look at how Fortunes Changed for Five stars of Saturday night's show.
FRANKIE EDGAR - Edgar's stock is the highest it has been since his second win over Maynard in one of UFC's greatest in-cage rivalries. At the age of 33, Saturday may have been his finest performance, mixing up boxing and wrestling while working with a seemingly endless gas tank.
So many wrestlers in the UFC start out strong, may win the first round, but the process of working for takedowns expends so much energy that things reverse later in the fight. Edgar, instead, constantly went for takedowns, but got stronger with each successive round in a five-round affair.
Right now, for Edgar, it's really a sit-and-wait situation, until the McGregor fight. If he doesn't get the title shot, there are three possibilities. The most intriguing fight would be with Mendes (16-2). The problem is if Mendes wins that, you've knocked off Edgar as a contender, and there are no other contenders ready. Mendes would have to get the next shot and he's gone 0-2 against Aldo. As exciting as last month's Aldo vs. Mendes fight was, there's not much clamor to go back to it so fast.
The other possible opponent would be Ricardo Lamas (15-3), coming off his win last week over Dennis Bermudez. But that's the same situation, only worse. At least Mendes gave Aldo the fight of his life. Lamas also lost to Aldo, and based on their first meeting, there would be little interest in it again.
For both the UFC and Edgar, putting him in a fight right now, or until he gets a title shot, is a situation where both sides have little to gain and a lot to lose.
CUB SWANSON - Swanson went from someone being talked about for Aldo, into someone who needs to regroup. From his perspective, the highest risk/reward fight to lobby for is Mendes. While the win wouldn't get him a title shot immediately, it would shoot him back to top three. But Mendes would also be the highest risk in the division for Swanson to lose two straight.
Lamas and Bermudez would be the other strong possibilities for being the right next fight.
EDSON BARBOZA - Barboza (15-2) took all three rounds from Bobby Green to likely move him solidly into the top ten at lightweight.
As far as pure talent goes, speed, power in his hands and feet, and reflexes, Barboza is top tier in this or any other division. The knock on him is that he has a weak chin. He fought No. 4 ranked Donald Cerrone in April, and was cleaning his clock until being hit with a shot and it was lights out.
Most of the top lightweights are booked. Perhaps the best fight for him would be Josh Thomson (20-7), but it's not clear when, or if, Thomson wants to fight again as he's been busy running his own gym and has openly talked about potential retirement for the past year. Past that, or Michael Johnson (15-8), it may be a waiting game to see who wins what fights in the division over the next six weeks.
JOSEPH BENAVIDEZ - The King of Joe Jitsu retained his position as one of the sport's greatest bridesmaids. Benavidez (21-4), has lost four times in his career, twice to Dominick Cruz when he was a bantamweight and twice to flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson.
In winning all three rounds over Dustin Ortiz, Benavidez retained his No. 1 contender position at flyweight. The strong consensus is that Benavidez is the second-best fighter in the division. But with two losses to the champion, the question becomes how many more wins he needs to get a third shot.
Because of that, and because flyweight is razor-thin when it comes to depth, Benavidez is one of the toughest to book fighters on the roster. Ian McCall and Kyoji Horiguchi should be avoided because Johnson needs opponents and they are two of the few potential foes out there. That leaves Wilson Reis (19-5) and John Lineker (24-7) as the best of the rest.
PAIGE VANZANT - There was a star-making performance on Saturday night, at least to the few who saw it, as VanZant (4-1) made her UFC debut beating Kailin Curran (3-1) in a women's strawweight fight.
The fight only aired on Fight Pass. But it tore down the house in Austin, Tex., with more than one standing ovation. It also earned both women fight of the night bonuses.
A sad reality, when it comes to women in sports, is that so much of their marketability is based on looks. Gina Carano was the face of women's MMA for years, not because she was the best fighter, but because she had a face that ended up getting her into the movies. While Ronda Rousey, and to a lesser extent Miesha Tate, have proven to be two of the best female fighters, much of their marketability is a combination of both looks and fighting ability.
The 20-year-old VanZant came into UFC with the look. VanZant was originally scheduled for the current season of The Ultimate Fighter in the tournament for the women's strawweight title. But since she hadn't turned 21, and there alcohol involved in the show, she was pulled out. She'd have likely been the most talked about cast member had she been in the show.
In fighting, looks can only take you so far without ability. What we saw on Saturday was one of the youngest fighters in the organization fight for three rounds at a torrid pace. If she was standing, she was constantly trying to attack. Off her back, she was nonstop going for submissions. As far as how well she will do against top competition, the jury is out.
By not getting her on television, Saturday was a promotional miss. The key in her next fight is to put her in a position where people care about her and her fight. There is an easy fight to do this with, pitting her against Feilce Herrig (9-5). Herrig has the ability to garner attention, and will promote the fight. Put in the right spot on a major show, and it should be on a big show, with the right exposure for the two women, it will garner interest. VanZant, stylistically, looks like she'd probably win that fight. But she doesn't have to be a champion to be a star. As long as she's an action fighter put in the spotlight, she can be among the most recognizable faces in the sport.